Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cursed in Peru

South America is my favorite continent. Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, I have visited them all, and all of them repeatedly. In many ways they are as different from each other as they are, in other ways, similar. Grandiose and varied landscapes, warm-hearted people, fascinating cultures, archaeology, they have them all, each in their own way.

Except for Colombia and Ecuador, Peru is the one I know best. I have travelled to Peru so many times since 1971 that I could not say how many if my life depended on it. I was there last in June 2007, when covering the pre-Inca Chachapoya culture for Archaeology magazine (Archaeology January-February 2008).

The number, variety, and grandeur of Peru’s archaeological sites have no match on the continent. And with Argentina, it also has the best food. I have eaten well there even in the most remote villages. So I was rather surprised the morning that an old lady in black served me dirty milk in a big grubby bowl.

I had spent the night on her farm while traveling horseback across parts of the Andes Mountains with a Morochuco cattle herder to guide me cross-country. He had lost his way, and when we had asked the old lady for help, she had told us to wait until the next morning, when her nephew would guide us out of there. It was late anyway.

The woman had served my friend a much smaller bowl of dirty milk, and as hot milk nauseates me, and my friend Jose could never get enough of it, I had suggested that we exchange bowls. That had enraged the woman, who had thrown us out and cursed me.

“Uneducated Gringo!” she shouted as Jose and I rode away, “May you get lost, suffer scorching thirst, and meet bandits.” Curiously, all her wishes came through within a few days.

To read the story, please go to my website (, and read the article titled (how else?) Cursed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Playing doctor in Borneo

Traveling far from the beaten path has sometimes forced me to play doctor. That can be problematic. First, how do I persuade my own doctor to prescribe me enough pills to help a few people? Besides, a few pills are never enough, for once I start medicating people, the procession of would-be patients never ends. And how do I pay for them? They’re expensive, and nobody helps me with the bill. Years ago, magazines paid for my travel expenses. But not any more.

When I was younger and foolish, I traveled light and did not bother carrying as much as aspirins with me. I thought I’d never die. I went on two 30-day camel journeys across the Sahara that way. That did not stop people to bring their sick relatives to me. Once it was a little Sahara Tuareg girl who had a small stone lodged inside her ear. Over time the flesh had grown over it. In another Tuareg camp it was a boy who had had the tip of his penis accidentally chopped off when circumcised. In Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, a Danakil nomad also showed me his penis. It was rotten with infection.

I could have done nothing for those people if I had carried any drugs. I may not have been able to do much for myself if I had been in their shoes. And there’s always the danger that if you give a couple of aspirins to someone with high fever, and that person dies during the night, that you will be accused of the death.

However, when traveling across Borneo once, I made sure that I was carrying enough medicines for myself. I had no idea how long I would be living in the jungle, and the environment would be less healthy than that of the Sahara. My isolation among primitive tribes ended up lasting four months, and if anyone in my family had died meanwhile, that person might have been long buried by the time I got back home. It made me wonder how many relatives Marco Polo never saw again during his long years of travels.

When, somewhere in the middle of the island, a middle-aged man came to show me a large greenish wound in the middle of an awfully swollen forearm, I knew I had to try to help him. While hunting, a wild pig had bitten him, and his wound had festered for some time.

I was carrying four disposable syringes and antibiotic. I had never before given anyone an injection, but the needle got into his buttock as if through butter. I boiled the needle for possible reuse.

The man was back the next day. However, this time the used needle refused to get through his skin. After trying unsuccessfully different parts of his backside, the only option left to me was to stab him with the needle. Later, I boiled it again.

Next day the man was back once more, but this time he limped badly. I had just learned that disposable needles were just that, and that if I ever needed my three other needles, they would only be good for three injections. So I had to tell him that I had run out of antibiotic.

But I was of much more help to another poor devil. He was a man from Sumatra, a Batak in his mid-twenties, who the Dyak had held against his will for two years. Though he only had a fifth-grade education, a Swiss missionary had told him that if he went to teach Dyak children to read and write, they would pay him with gold.

Using the wood from the forest, the Dyak had built a one-room school on stilts. They had much gold, but never gave him any. He spoke a little English, and begged me to tell the Dyak that I needed him as an interpreter. I felt bad for the kids, but it was not right to keep this man from returning to his own people. So I accepted, and the Dyak consented to his release.

Unfortunately, that meant rushing to his help every time a leach hooked up on him during our eight-day forest crossing of the water divide. That must have been 30 to 40 times a day, and I had my own leeches to constantly pull off. But he screamed as a manias each time as if the leeches were killing him.

One evening he really shocked me. “Last night,” he said “I told the Dyak to kill you and take all your possessions.”

“Are you out of your mind?” I asked. “Why did you say such thing?”

“I wanted to be sure that they had no ill intentions toward you.”

“And what did they say?”

“They said that nowadays they can no longer do that. Your people would come after them if they did. They also said that they were afraid of you. Have you seen his eyes, they asked? Have you ever seen such eyes? They are blue!”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Through Borneo, From Coast to Coast

In 1968, in a four-month journey across Borneo, the world’s third largest island, I traveled west to
east, up the Kapuas and Bungan rivers and down the Mahakkam, from Pontianak to Samarinda.
That was long before the loggers’ invasion, and long before any road was first hacked or bulldozed through the forest. I journeyed first by Chinese houseboat, and then by Dyak canoe. When rapids impeded our progress, which was often, we walked through the forest.

At the end of our upriver trip, we left our canoes on the Bungan and walked for eight days to the
Mahakkam through the jungle of the water divide. Because the Dyak had no use for money, I
needed eight porters to carry the trade goods that paid for services. Countless leeches hooked
onto us along the way, drawing streams of blood from our arms and legs.

The chain-smoking Dyak burned them off with cigarettes. A non-smoker, I plucked them off
by hand, sometimes leaving the head inside my skin. And since the leeches squeezed through my
shoes’ eyelets to lodge under my toenails, I had to walk through the jungle barefoot so as to spot
them quickly.

The Dyak, former headhunters, still had skulls hanging from their longhouses’ rafts, but they were
as hospitable as any people I had known, though they forced me to sing and dance for them before giving
me a place to sleep. Compared to their own amazing artistic shows, mine looked dismal, which I could see
on their faces.

Halfway down the Mahakkam, I ran out of trade goods when every hand was needed to harvest the
hill rice. I had to give away everything I owned except the clothes on my back and my photographic
equipment to find the help I needed to get out of the jungle.

Friday, May 8, 2009



In northern Kenya, on a walking expedition with my friend Jeff Barr, I witnessed a dog behavior which might have cost the lives of at least two persons.

Jeff had taught my sons at the American school in Colombia where we both lived some years earlier. We’d hired three Turkana nomads to guide us and introduce us to their people along the way. They were also to lead six donkeys that carried mostly water, along with our personal belongings, camping equipment, and food for a little over a week. We needed a lot of water, for our itinerary was taking us across volcanic desert, through one of the hottest places on earth, the Suguta Valley, deep at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, just south of Lake Turkana.

We had camped that night at a hundred paces from the two straw huts of a Turkana family--an old man and his two young wives and children. Yes, the Turkana can have as many wives as they can support. Like our Turkana companions, Jeff and I were sleeping under the sky and a nearly full moon, enjoying a relatively cool rest after a hellish day. Jeff was deservedly asleep, for he handled the cooking, which he loved to do, at the end of each exhausting day. My job, writing notes, cleaning cameras, and sorting film, was much more relaxing.

Something, a noise perhaps, wakened me. Immersing myself in thoughts after that, I was unable to close my eyes again.

Suddenly, I heard an angry cry, and saw Silale, our Turkana interpreter, get up to curse and run after something. I assumed a dog had stolen some food, and I added my voice to his, making loud silly noises which I wanted to sound threatening. It was a dog indeed, an ugly little yellow creature with the oblique and shuffling gait of a jackal. He was unimpressed, and trotted by me as though I did not exist. I’d seen him that afternoon sleeping under the tree where we had unloaded our luggage for the night.

"Look at that impudent bastard, cried Silale. He came to bite me in my sleep. Thanks God! I was wrapped up in my blanket."

That was strange, indeed.

By now having lost all hope to sleep, I got up to check if a stream, which had come down from the hills that afternoon after a rare downpour that take years to occur, was still running. It had been almost completely absorbed by the underlying sand, and by morning would have disappeared. Poor Turkana children, I thought; they would be disappointed, for the stream had made great impression on them. They had never before seen running water.

The night had not delivered its last surprise. Now, at two in the morning, a little girl in one of the huts woke up screaming, and then sobbing loudly. Her parents started a terrific commotion, and I wondered whether the old man was giving one of his wives a thrashing. At that, everyone else woke up, and our own three Turkana, spears in hand, ran wildly towards the huts.

Cries filled the night, but I couldn't understand a word. I thought the old man might be attempting to kill the woman, and that our friends were rushing to her rescue. Pulled out so violently from his sleep, Jeff was even more surprised by the pandemonium.

Before I had made any sense of the situation, the Turkana were all running at me now--the men with spears high, the women with pangas (small machetes). For a moment, I did not know whether to run too, and where. But no, why should these people want to spear me?

And then I saw the little yellow dog ahead of them—dashing straight at me. And in an instant I grasped the situation. The dog had sneaked inside the hut to bite the little girl, and must have been rabid. Now he intended to give me the kiss of death. Even as I grabbed up a thorny branch from the ground and shook it threateningly, he kept coming at me.
Luckily, my Turkana were fast on his heels, and he managed only one snap at me, just as I jumped sideways. Then the desert night swallowed him.

The Turkana could easily have killed him, but they would not, which was admirable of them. But they must not have known about rabies.

That was too bad, for the little yellow dog could bite other people, or other animals that would bite other people, and perhaps cause untold harm.

Thanks God, the damage had been only minor thus far. It turned out the dog had first tried to bite the little girl's leg through her blanket, causing only a minor scratch. He had then jumped onto her face, but in the nick of time she had pulled the blanket over it while screaming for help.

That was fortunate, for her parents would not have walked several days to bring her to a bush clinic They would have found no rabies antidote there anyway.

Concerned that the dog might return, Jeff and I did not sleep anymore that night. Still, Jeff thought that his unusually loud snoring had saved us thus far. It may have, as it scared me sometimes.

Every night, we had listened to the howling of distant jackals. That night the howling sounded different.

“That’s the little yellow dog howling,” Silale said.